East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 11, No. 4, Fall 2003, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Teaching Cross-Culturally

Judith E. Lingenfelter and Sherwood G. Lingenfelter

Editor's Note: Since the fall of Communism, large numbers of teachers, pastors, and evangelists from the West have lectured and preached in post-Soviet states in seminaries, churches, mass meetings, and conferences. All indications are that this itinerant ministry continues in force, with particular ongoing importance for the hundred-plus new Protestant seminaries that still have limited numbers of indigenous faculty with higher degrees. As a follow-up to a previous East-West Church and Ministry Report article: Mark R. Elliott, "Guidelines for Guest Preaching, Teaching, and Cross-Cultural Communications," 10 (Spring 2002), 8-12, the editor commends the advice on teaching cross-culturally provided here by experienced cross-cultural educators Judith E. and Sherwood G. Lingenfelter.

The "Hidden" Curriculum
Schooling always occurs in a larger cultural context, and the "hidden curriculum" is the cultural agenda for learning that surrounds schooling. If we think about education as the entire process of cultural transmission, cultural learning surrounds the much smaller "stated curriculum" of schooling. This hidden curriculum is"caught" rather than "taught."

Teachers as Learners
The first principle is to become a learner in the new cultural context. To be an effective cross-cultural teacher, one must learn the other-culture perspective. An example of my failure on [the Pacific island of] Yap to decipher the hidden curriculum occurred when teaching the color wheel. The first day I confidently held it up and had students repeat the colors in English after me. They did fine until they came to the colors blue and green. Only ten years later, when reading about differences in cultural perceptions of color, did I realize what I had done. I had failed to ask why my young students knew all the colors except blue and green. I now understand that on this tiny island surrounded by the ocean, they use many words to capture the distinctions of blue and green necessary to function effectively in their environment.

Teaching cross-culturally requires that we learn to think outside our cultural and contextual expectations and to look for solutions beyond our training, experience, and expertise. We must begin to think about our faith in Jesus Christ as the beginning of our liberation from our cultural bias. As Paul reminds us in Philippians 2:1-5, we are to regard others as better than ourselves and make their interests at least equal to our own.

We often see another's culture of teaching and learning as deficient and think of our own culture as superior. As Christian teachers we know we should "consider others better than ourselves" (Philippians 2:3), yet we are convinced of the superiority of our training and gifts. As teachers we must begin as learners--observing carefully our students and the diversity of cultural ways in which they learn.

How Teachers Should Act
People who teach cross-culturally encounter differences in the expectations students have of the way in which teachers should conduct themselves in the classroom. The first variable one must seek to understand is the degree to which a society values conformity, to the collective or group expectations of family and community.

The second variable of importance is the degree to which a culture values the separation of roles and assigns high or low status to those roles. A Confucian teacher, for example, has a special and highly respected role, located among other high status positions in society. The teacher has the authority, and therefore, a student would never question the teacher's word. The teacher is absolutely respected, and as a result, students always stand when the teacher enters the classroom, bow in deference, and listen carefully, writing word for word what the teacher says. A western teacher's role can vary widely. Western teachers of children have authority and demand respect, but they encourage questions from students and may even tolerate argument. Teachers of teens and adults often take a "peer expert" role, seeing students as peers who lack a teacher's expertise, but who are partners in the teaching and learning process. The cultural contrast is in the degree of separation and status.

Each society must define its social relationships with reference to these two variables. People must choose whether to value individual autonomy, conformity to a group, or a blend of these extremes. They must also decide whether individual [status]roles will be open to all, narrowly defined and limited to a few select individuals, or a blend of these extremes. Each variable may be described as a continuum--weak to strong demands for conformity to a group and weak to strong differentiation of social roles and status.

The expectations of students who see the teacher as an authority figure contrast sharply with the expectations of students who see the teacher as a facilitator. Students who see the teacher as an authority figure do not value independent thinking; they merely want the teacher to tell them what will be on the test so they can memorize it. When the teacher tries to encourage questions and interaction, the students often feel it is a waste of time.

Pamela George, whose book College Teaching Abroad (1995) surveys Fulbright scholars who have taught in various countries around the world, summarizes the frustrations they experienced: "I would say, 'What about this?' And then I'd wait. I'd sit there and sip my tea. Nothing. Then I'd call on somebody, 'Chung, what do you think?' He would look down at his book [silence]. I have no experience with this--the experience of calling on a student and the ability of that student to outwait me!"

This professor, working from the teacher as facilitator role, expected interaction with his students. He expected them to ask questions or at least to answer when called upon. The students, however, reared in a tradition in which status is important and the teacher is the authority, were unfamiliar with that pattern. They were in class to learn from the professor, and the only questions they expected to answer were those that had clear right or wrong answers. [But] the incarnational teacher is willing to give up aspects of the teacher role that fits his or her cultural background and to take on the role that fits the social-cultural world of the students.

Cheating--or Helping One Another?
Many teachers express deep frustrations about students who cheat on tests. Educator Ted Ward told me a story of an experience he had in Ghana. When he observed people giving one another answers, he asked for the definition of cheating. One man stood up straight and announced, "Sir, cheating is withholding information from those who need it!" Such a definition is diametrically opposed to the typical western definition. The cross-cultural teacher, therefore, must grapple with complex cultural realities. Students may value group learning and try to support one another in the testing process. Under some circumstances, that may be the most effective method to achieve blearning.

The culture of prestige often surprises foreign teachers. In some places in Asia, students stand and either bow or clap when the teacher enters the classroom. Some western teachers comment on how uncomfortable this makes them feel, and one person told me that she vigorously discouraged this practice in her classes. What she did not realize was she was breaking down respect patterns concerning the ascribed status of a teacher. The consequences of such a seemingly innocuous decision may not surface until many years later.

Still another cultural surprise may be appropriate dress. In America, the current trend in businesses and churches is casual dress. The expectations in a status-oriented society, however, demand that a teacher dress according to his or her position. Many Americans cringe at the thought of wearing a coat and tie or high heels and stockings, but if that is the accepted dress, then the western educator should follow.

The Culture of Planning
In western schools, there is a strong developed culture of planning. This value is so important that accreditors may censure school leaders who fail to maintain adequate systems of planning. In this cultural climate, most teachers and school administrators develop habits and expectations for planning in their daily and long-term routines. We plan budgets, maintain an inventory of materials and supplies, schedule maintenance, and conduct periodic evaluations to revise programs and plan for the future. Western teachers who work under national leaders in two-thirds world schools frequently fault these leaders for failing to meet their planning expectations. A [relaxed] orientation prevails throughout much of the two-thirds world, not because all non-westerners think this way, but because economic and political uncertainties force such people to accept ambiguity and unforeseen events. One may order all the supplies necessary for the coming school year well ahead of time, but if war stops planes from flying and trucks from driving, the materials will not arrive on time."Strategic waiting" may prove more effective than "strategic planning."

The Political and Historical Context of Learning
It is absolutely essential to have a basic understanding of the political context in which a school operates. The best way to begin is to find the most current books on the political and economic situations of the country. These works usually provide the important historical context of the nation and an interpretive analysis that helps one process complex information and draw applications for working in that nation. To review more current events, read news sources on the Internet and find articles that provide analysis of these events.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of learning about the political realities while you are a beginning learner. One of our students conducted research in the Ukraine a few years after the collapse of Communism. He discovered that asking seemingly innocuous questions such as "How many students are in the school?" produced a great deal of suspicion. Why did he want to know? What was he going to do with the information? Further, when he tried to observe classes or ask for advice on teaching, he found people extremely reluctant to help. He soon learned that these activities were considered politically risky; people were afraid he might disclose information that could cost them their jobs or their standing with officials. He had to develop other nonthreatening ways of learning to continue his research program.

Teachers Learning to Learn In Order to Teach
In many two-thirds world cultures, a deep relationship does not begin until there is debt and reciprocal obligation. We have found that one of the best ways to signal our desire for a deeper relationship is to ask others for help. This phase of the relationship causes much stress to many westerners. For self-sufficient westerners, asking for help is much more difficult than giving it, yet asking is the most important step in initiating relationships in many non-western cultural contexts.

Judith E. Lingenfelter is professor and director of the Ph.D. program in the School of Intercultural Education, Biola University, LaMirada, CA, and Sherwood G. Lingenfelter is provost and senior vice-president at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from the authors' Teaching Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Learning and Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003). $12.99.

Judith E. Lingenfelter and Sherwood G. Lingenfelter, "Teaching Cross-Culturally," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Fall 2003), 16, 15.

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© 2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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